A desperate sister - Museum director Kate Fontaine made two promises to her dying father—protect her ne’er-do-well brother and return a stolen statuette of the Maya god of earthquakes to its temple. But when her brother is kidnapped and the price to save him is the priceless artifact, keeping one promise means breaking the other. In a no-win situation and facing a dangerous trek through the jungle, Kate is forced to rely on a guide she doesn’t trust… yet whose touch makes her yearn for so much more.
A cynical guide - The only person Max Rivera can truly count on is himself. That's why he prefers to work alone. Unfortunately his Devlin Security Force assignment to guide and protect Kate includes covertly finding proof her kidnapped brother has sold black-market antiquities. And sticking close to this delectable and vulnerable woman proves more dangerous to Max than all the threats in the jungle.
A race against time - While following the kidnapper’s instructions, Max and Kate must outrun black-market smugglers and a predicted earthquake in a race that takes them from Washington to England and into the Costa Verde jungle. But as perilous as their quest becomes, when desire flares between them, risking their lives seems simple next to risking their hearts.
Research Picture Gallery
People swimming in a cenote, as Max and Kate do in the book. An unrestored building at Coba, Mexico, and the "Temple of Commerce," shaped like a beehive, because the local Maya traded in honey.
Susan & her husband at Coba. Dona Jimena, making tortillas the old way, over a charcoal fire. A restaurant where they served the tour group a delicious lunch.
Excerpt from Chapter One
Dulles International Airport, Washington, D.C.
The gig was right up his alley. Recover an artifact with a curse—Kizin, the Maya god of earthquakes, no less. Deliver it in tandem with the rescue of a kidnap victim somewhere in the Costa Verde jungle. And outflank that damn smuggling ring. Only hitch was the time frame—beat an earthquake.
And, oh, yeah. The client. Make that two hitches. Talk to the boss on that one.
Max Rivera adjusted his back pack and grabbed his duffel bag from the carousel. Slinging the strap onto one shoulder, he headed toward the coffee kiosk by the car rental desks. The new client must be damned important to Devlin Security Force if Devlin himself took the time to make the introduction. Max searched the crowd as he wove past people gabbing in a dozen languages.
He paid for the coffee, downed a big gulp, and burned the crap out of his mouth.He needed a jolt but not blisters.
“Need waking up?” Thomas Devlin’s deep voice turned him around.
Brown eyes crinkled with amusement, probably at Max’s beach-bum look. A definite contrast to the other man’s dark suit and open shirt collar. Devlin might dress civilian, but his bearing was all military.
Max threw back his shoulders and gripped his former captain’s hand. “No shit. But right now I need caffeine.” He barely stopped himself from adding sir. “I just dragged my butt off a sixteen-hour flight. Surrounded by a family that never stopped talking.”
“You can sleep on the flight to London.” Devlin pounded him on the back and nudged him through the building toward the escalators.
“You know me, Thomas. I’m up for anything. I know Costa Verde. England, not so much. But a chance to jam up Centaur and return a bit of history to its rightful place, I’m in.” Especially Maya history. If his old mentor was looking down, he’d approve. “Hazardous situation, potentially explosive, even better.”
“So you say, but I hear doubt in your voice.” Devlin stuffed a boarding pass in Max’s shirt pocket.
“No problem with the mission.” Choosing his words, Max drank more coffee. “Not for me, I mean. But damned dangerous for a museum executive type. I’d rather handle the job solo.”
He knew his own capabilities. Other people let you down, left you high and dry. You didn’t know who to trust, who not to trust.
“No can do. Here’s the part of your job I didn’t tell you because I needed to check with Interpol. You’re to find out what you can on our kidnap victim’s black-market dealing—subtly.”
Max pressed his lips together. He shot a glance toward the high ceiling before nodding. “And for that, I need Doug Fontaine’s sister Kate. The client. Get her to spill on her brother while I protect her in London and Costa Verde. Roger.”
He scraped knuckles across his jaw. A run-in with Fontaine two years ago in Istanbul had left behind a bad taste. If traveling with the sister meant a way to nail the guy, he’d suck it up.
“One more thing,” Devlin said as they left the escalator. “Don’t mention the other players to Kate Fontaine until you know more.”
“Or until sharing that becomes necessary.” More danger to the client might put her on the sidelines. Something to keep in mind.
The wait in line at the ticket counter was short, one couple ahead arguing in French. Max checked the duffel, glad to have the weight off his shoulder.
“Twenty-one days before that earthquake’s supposed to hit? But come on, Thomas, an earthquake curse?”
“Right. There are tremors. The client will explain further.” Devlin led the way toward a central hallway and the escalators to the security checkpoint. “The quake’s the biggest danger... but not the only one. People will kill to possess the artifact. DSF has no contact in Costa Verde to verify, and I can’t send in a team. This op has to be low key. Kate says certain parties there want the statue for the powers they believe it possesses.”
“I’m not surprised.” For many, ancient Maya beliefs mingled with others.
They wove past other travelers to the checkpoint, and Devlin tipped his head toward a pillar. “There’s our client.”
Max’s gaze followed his boss’s as he tossed down the last of the coffee. He stopped mid-swallow. Shit. Not the hot blonde. “Her?”
“Katherine Fontaine, Assistant Director, one of three at the National Cultural Museum. Your traveling companion. Your principal.”
Cell phone to one ear, she stood tapping her foot. Mile-long legs encased in slim black pants. Fitted jacket. Designer and pricey. An attitude that shouted hands-off. A body that equaled distraction. Distraction meant trouble.
Elegant. Educated. Probably pampered. Trouble in capital letters? Yeah. Big time.
I’m awake now.
Clunky shoes—practical. Okay. Maybe the woman had some sense after all.
“London, yeah, but can you see that female in the interior jungles of Costa Verde? Nope, de ningún modo, no way.”
Devlin’s mouth quirked up. “DSF does a lot of work for her museum. She’s a valuable client. And Kate Fontaine is tougher than she looks.”
Max gritted his teeth. Tossed his cup in a nearby recycling bin.
She’d better be tough. His job was protection, not babysitting.
“You have no idea how much this is upsetting me, Katherine.”
Kate did, but it was too late to change anything she’d done or failed to do. She switched the cell phone to her right ear.
“I thought you hired someone to rescue poor Dougie.”
“I did, Mom, but to accompany me to England and Costa Verde, not to deliver the statue. I’ll be okay. Try not to worry.Devlin Security Force is a reputable firm. They specialize in protecting and retrieving art and artifacts. The museum has hired DSF many times to protect exhibits en route. I have every confidence in their man to protect and guide me.” Every. Confidence.
“But why do you have to go?” Without stopping for an answer, her mom continued her complaint.
Kate stepped closer to the pillar and away from passengers filing into the security line. She shifted the shoulder strap of the carryon and readjusted the phone. No sign yet of Thomas Devlin and his agent, and her mom could talk longer than the life of the battery charge.
If only she’d taken the time to attend the London auction instead of sending Doug, everything would’ve been fine. He wouldn’t be suffering from a broken leg and a head injury, and his life wouldn’t be in jeopardy. That Doug didn’t blame her for the injuries and neither did Mom made no difference. Her fault. All of it. Tears burned her eyes and she willed them away.
Ten days ago, because Doug hadn’t returned her call, she’d driven to his condo. No Doug. No wheelchair. No meds. Only a printed note that read, “We have Fontaine. If you want to see him alive, no police. Call.” Then a phone number. A disposable phone, the police detective said, untraceable. No witnesses, no clues, no leads. The damn scum thought of everything. The FBI could offer nothing better. Time was short so she had little choice. DSF was excellent at protecting artifacts, but...
A man in a black leather jacket approached on her left. Kate edged aside but relaxed when he discarded a sandwich wrapper in the trash. Calm down. Except... oh, wait, didn’t she have every right to be jumpy and suspicious? She huffed and turned her back.
“Mom, Scotland Yard will tell me nothing. I need to find out the names of possible suspects some other way.” And the British collector who sold the statue to Doug knew the business, knew other collectors. Even some who might do whatever necessary to obtain a rare artifact. She pressed her free hand to her roiling stomach. She wouldn’t think about what could happen to Doug.
“All well and good,” her mom continued. “England is civilization. But the jungle?”
No kidding. Scorpions in the tent, snakes, and— Minor hazards of nature compared to an earthquake. True, all true. Enough to terrify her, but not enough to stop her. She’d do whatever it took to save Doug’s life. She fisted her free hand so tightly her nails bit into her palms.
“I have to follow the kidnapper’s instructions.” It was more complicated than that, but no point in elaborating. “I have to do this myself, Mom.”
“But earthquake country? Didn’t you say the tremors were increasing?” her mother whined. “You’re not equipped, Katherine.”
Kate tuned out the same old song. But Mom was right. She wasn’t tough or brave or experienced like Doug and her dad. Going through the jungle was beyond risky. God, she’d give anything to be at her desk where her only concern was placating a temperamental curator.
Her mother sniffled. “How can you go off and leave me all alone? Anything could happen to you. I need you.”
Anything could happen, yes, but she couldn’t—wouldn’t—let herself dwell on worst-case scenarios. And Devlin’s operative would guide her. He’d protect her. And Kizin, once she recovered it. She couldn’t afford second thoughts, not with barely three weeks before the deadline. At the inadvertent word choice, a shiver went through her.
“You’ll be okay,” she said gently. “If I had a choice, I’d stay here.”
More sniffs and the brush of tissues. “You’re going on a wild trek just like... like...”
Like my father. Like my brother. She studied a crack in the tile floor. “It’s not the same as one of Dad’s expeditions, Mom. I have to go.” The loudspeaker blared. “They’re calling my flight. Try not to worry. I’ll bring Doug back. I promise. Love you. Bye.”
She dropped the phone in her bag. The announcement was about a truck blocking the fire lane, but she couldn’t bear listening to more pleas. And her dad... Her throat closed.
The leather-jacketed man returned. He stood by the pillar, looking her way. Swarthy complexion, stocky. Maybe Hispanic. When she caught his eye, he turned away abruptly.
Her pulse kicked up and a band tightened around her chest.
Now, his gaze scoured the crowd. Like her, waiting for someone? Or--
Had he been watching her? Could he be with the kidnappers? Her heart pounded double time. Edging away, she searched the baggage-laden crowd again for Thomas.
A group of women in brightly colored saris walked toward her. Behind them... At last, Thomas Devlin. She sighed and relaxed the tension in her shoulders. She’d recognize that military stride and piercing stare anywhere. The commanding confidence that drew every eye.
But no more than the man with him. Her protector? About her age, early thirties. Close to six feet like Devlin. Macho and muscular. Good.
In contrast with Devlin’s GQ looks, he wore scuffed Western boots, cargo shorts, and a shirt as rumpled as his jet-black hair. He was shaggy, slovenly, and unshaven. And very hung over, judging by his pained expression. Not good.
Please, not him. An inarticulate grumble escaped her throat. She searched for some other likely candidate, another eagle-fierce male nearby. No one. Only a Greek or Italian family, all shorter than her five eight.
Clutching her bag against her side, she hurried toward the two men. “Thomas, there’s a man.” She flapped a hand toward the pillar. “He was watching me. Maybe for the kidnappers?”
Devlin took her arm and pulled her aside. “Where?”
“There, by the pillar. I—” She searched the area. “He’s gone.”
“What’s he look like?” Devlin’s agent dumped his backpack onto the tile floor. A scowl storm-darkened his blunt-featured face.
The man looked more frightening than the watcher, yet a frisson of awareness rippled through her. “Small, dark, maybe Hispanic. Black leather jacket.”
People streamed behind them on the concourse and ahead to security. Kate caught sight of a short man in a leather jacket hurrying away through the crowd.
“There!” She pointed. “By the Iberia ad. That’s him.”
“Worth a shot.” The agent took off at a trot, past the sari-clad women, who fluttered aside like flower petals. Kate heard his “Sorry,” as he ran on, weaving around the travelers in his path.
“Kate,” Devlin said, pulling her attention from the now disappearing agent and the swarthy man. “Why do you think that man was watching you?”
She drew a deep breath, then described the man’s behavior. Her pulse settled to normal, but suddenly her tablet and overnight necessities weighed more than the Queen Mary II. She slid the bag to the floor. “He looked my way more than once, but maybe I’m overreacting.”
The grim look tightening his straight, dark brows softened. “In your situation, probably not. Our bad guy could very well be keeping tabs on you to make sure you’re following instructions.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. Max will protect you.”
As if conjured by the mention of his name, the agent rejoined them, barely breathing hard. Disreputable, but rugged and fast on his feet. Okay. She could live with that.
“Guy’s gone,” he said. “Too much of a head start. I checked the nearest men’s room. Nada.”
“Too bad,” Devlin said. “Almost like that thief in Kabul.”
“Yup.” The agent stepped closer. The aroma of coffee and the light tang of sweat emanated from him. Framed by thick, sooty lashes, eyes the color of melted chocolate swept her with male interest. “That one didn’t get away, ma’am.”
His drawl—Texas?—slid into her like red wine. The man radiated sex like heat rays.
“Kate Fontaine,” Devlin said, “this is one of my best operatives, Max Rivera.”
Max Rivera held out a hand. His expression smoothed to polite blandness. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” She accepted his handshake, registering strength, the rasp of calluses, and a surprisingly gentle warmth. “Thank you for coming to my rescue, Mr. Rivera.” Max Rivera. The name seemed familiar. Thomas must’ve mentioned him before.
“No problem. And make it Max, Kate.”
They’d be traveling together for days. Formality was out, but she could ignore him as a man, regardless of her initial reaction. She was no lonely female looking for a fling. Especially with an adventurer like the men in her family. A man who’d take over, who’d pat her on the head—figuratively—and tell her she was out of her element. She was, but still.
“If things go according to plan, you shouldn’t need rescuing again, you or the statue.” Humor glinted in Max’s dark eyes.
She managed a smile. “Like you say. As long as nothing goes wrong.” Great. What could go wrong? Her stomach churned.
She thanked Devlin and shook his hand. The two men performed some sort of coded guy handshake, and she and Max joined the security line.
He didn’t seem inclined to chat and neither did she. They inched forward through the rope line until finally they reached the checkpoint. She deposited her gear in bins. Behind her, Max untied and kicked off his boots.
What was it about his name that niggled at her? She set her handbag and tablet case on the conveyer. Something about Doug. Max... Max Rivera. Her breath caught. Yes! She had heard his name before.
She spun on him.
“What is it? You see that guy again?” He gripped her arm.
She jerked away. “No, not that. I recognize your name.”